Philip King on the im­pres­sive BMW 730d.

Jeremy Clark­son’s no-star car. John Con­nolly’s hid­den gems.

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - PHILIP KING Mo­tor­ing ed­i­tor

We all know driver dis­trac­tion is a big cause of ac­ci­dents and it’s a rare day when you fail to see some­one bal­anc­ing a phone against their ear. Lots get caught, about 100 a day in NSW alone, and penal­ties are steep.

Not steep enough, ev­i­dently. In Septem­ber, Queens­land dou­bled de­merit points for a sec­ond of­fence and in NSW from this year you’ll lose four in­stead of three.

Ac­cept­able ways to use a phone in­clude voice con­trol, but re­cent find­ings sug­gest the cure may be as bad as the dis­ease. The AAA in the US, a mo­tor­ing club um­brella group like our own AAA, has an­a­lysed the ef­fects of hands-free tech­nol­ogy and finds it dis­tracts driv­ers even when their eyes are on the road.

Un­safe dis­trac­tion lev­els per­sist for up to 27 sec­onds, the Oc­to­ber re­port says. At city speeds, that can mean hun­dreds of me­tres dur­ing which a driver may be obliv­i­ous to stop signs, pedes­tri­ans and other ve­hi­cles.

“The mas­sive in­crease in voice-ac­ti­vated tech­nolo­gies in cars and phones rep­re­sents a grow­ing safety prob­lem for driv­ers,” AAA chief Mar­shall Doney says.

Voice recog­ni­tion sys­tems were sup­posed to solve the prob­lem of driver dis­trac­tion. They aim to let you make or re­ceive calls, send or lis­ten to mes­sages, as well as do mun­dane stuff such as ad­just the au­dio or air­con.

Most are rub­bish, though, and the study finds even the best di­vert at­ten­tion for 15 sec­onds.

When — or if — they do im­prove, it’s un­clear the prob­lem will go away. Com­bin­ing an­other task with driv­ing is al­ways go­ing to have some down­side.

The in­dus­try’s lat­est trick is ges­ture con­trol. It has been a fea­ture of con­cept cars for a few years, now it has ar­rived in BMW’s new flag­ship 7 Se­ries.

BMW al­ways puts its largest sedan in the tech­ni­cal van­guard, then trick­les in­no­va­tions down through its range. Other brands, such as Porsche, Jaguar and Mercedes, have sig­nalled their in­ten­tions to in­tro­duce simi- lar sys­tems. Soon, ges­ture con­trols will be every­where. The BMW sys­tem has a reper­toire of six ges­tures that must be per­formed un­der the rear-view mir­ror. They in­clude waves of the hand to ac­cept or re­ject a phone call, cir­cu­lar fin­ger mo­tions to ad­just vol­ume, and — my favourite — a sort of hor­i­zon­tal V-sign that can be set to a va­ri­ety of func­tions. Th­ese in­clude, say, set the sat-nav to direct me home.

Un­like voice con­trols, which can drive you in­sane, the lim­ited ges­tures are easy to learn and work most of the time. Do they solve the dis­trac­tion prob­lem?

Well, no. It’s not really clear why they’re here at all. When was the last time you thought, “If only my car had ges­ture con­trols. My life would be so much eas­ier?” In any lux­ury car likely to of­fer the sys­tem, you can achieve the same thing in other ways. Lots of other ways.

BMW uses a large ro­tary knob near the gear­stick as the main nav­i­ga­tion tool through its iDrive con­trol sys­tem. It was a pioneer with this type of sys­tem and its early at­tempts were no­to­ri­ously dread­ful. Now it leads the pack. The iDrive has been re­fined for the 7, with shadow sub-menus that show the next set of op­tions, and an­i­mated graph­ics.

Best of all, it an­tic­i­pates your needs. For ex­am­ple, if you ad­just the seat it will bring up the screen to store the new set­ting, com­plete with a pic­ture of what’s hap­pen­ing. Ma­noeu­vre near an ob­sta­cle, and the vir­tual over­head view is dis­played.

As well as ges­ture con­trol, this 7 also in­tro­duces touch-sen­si­tive op­er­a­tion. Quite why is again a mystery. Stab­bing at a touch­screen is in­her­ently more dif­fi­cult, and dis­tract­ing, than turn­ing a knob.

So now you can prod, sig­nal, talk, twist and press, or even use your fin­ger to “write” on the top of the con­trol knob — an ear­lier prod­uct of the gimmick wave. Then there are but­tons on the steer­ing wheel and more on the end of a wand that nav­i­gate through the small screen be­tween the di­als.

No won­der driv­ers get dis­tracted. If you run out of peo­ple to text, there’s so much to play with.

That’s true even when you’re not in the car. The 7 has a key that looks like a mini smart­phone and has re­mote-con­trol func­tions, such as ac­ti­vat­ing the air­con.

Ca­ter­ing to phone junkies and techno-nerds is one of the in­dus­try’s cen­tral ob­ses­sions. There are two oth­ers: low­er­ing emis­sions and push­ing up-mar­ket. Since Chi­nese lux­ury buy­ers be­gan to in­flu­ence the cars be­ing made, re­straint has gone out the win­dow. Ger­man and Bri­tish brands have been bling­ing-up their de­signs to the max. The brochure may say, “form fol­lows func­tion”, but that’s only true if the “func­tion” means ap­peal­ing to Chi­nese aes­thet­ics. Chrome has made a come­back and most de­signs are re­plete with faux vents and strakes so there’s some­where to put it.

This 7 gets with the pro­gram; the over­all shape goes

nowhere new but there’s more bright­work than ever. Per­haps a lit­tle too much. In­side, to ban­ish any lin­ger­ing doubts per­haps, af­ter press­ing the start but­ton the 7 Se­ries flashes up a mes­sage: “Wel­come, to lux­ury.” (Yes, with a re­dun­dant comma.)

More than any 7 be­fore, the mes­sage it­self is also re­dun­dant. This is BMW’s most con­vinc­ing lux­ury in­te­rior to date. It pitches into the mid­dle ground be­tween the aus­ter­ity of Audi and the gaudi­ness of Mercedes.

The cabin struc­ture and lay­out are fa­mil­iar, but all the but­tons and con­trols are metal­lic and feel top qual­ity. There are shiny high­lights every­where, in fact, but the ma­te­ri­als are lovely, fit and fin­ish top-notch. De­sign de­tails, such as black-panel dis­plays, raise the tone. As well as the con­trol sys­tem up­grade, the head-up dis­play has also im­proved. It’s now the best around.

You re­ceive a sun­roof whether you want one or not, ac­tive cruise con­trol that can stop-and-go, and ev­ery safety and alert sys­tem you can think of — plus some you can’t. Buy­ers can spec­ify M Sport styling at no ex­tra cost.

Driver po­si­tion and vis­i­bil­ity are good, with rea­son­ably thin A-pil­lars, and on the road the car doesn’t feel as big as its 5.1m length sug­gests. It points and goes with BMW as­surity and some of the dy­namic char­ac­ter of the brand’s smaller mod­els, de­spite a thick in­ter­ven­ing layer of han­dling soft­ware.

Over­all com­po­sure is ex­cel­lent al­though the car’s run-flat tyres, as ever, bring a bit more road de­tail to the event than is ideal. This aside, quiet­ness and re­fine­ment lev­els are up with the best.

It has shed up to 130kg thanks to the use of car­bon fi­bre in the pas­sen­ger cell struc­ture and tips the scales at a low 1.8 tonnes. That helps ef­fi­ciency, with the 3.0litre diesel in the test car re­turn­ing a re­mark­ably low of­fi­cial fig­ure of 4.9 litres per 100km.

It revs and goes in the best BMW diesel tra­di­tion, with gen­er­ous will­ing­ness — there’s a high 5500rpm red-line — and can pro­pel the car with petrol-like ur­gency to 100km/h in 6.1 sec­onds.

The 730d is the en­try car and BMW must be con­fi­dent be­cause, at $217,500, it starts above all its ri­vals in­clud­ing Porsche and Maserati. There’s also a 240kW petrol 3.0-litre six from $224,200 and the range cli­maxes at $312,700 with the long wheel­base 330kW V8 750iL due next year. It in­cludes night vi­sion, clever laser lights and a new au­to­mated park­ing sys­tem still await­ing Can­berra ap­proval when this was writ­ten.

Sell­ing any large sedan is tricky th­ese days, as SUVs rule. They are sim­ply more prac­ti­cal — the 7’s boot vol­ume of 515 litres can be found on much smaller SUVs. If there is any de­mand, this 7 has the sub­stance to com­pete. The ques­tion, as ever for BMW at this level, is whether the brand has enough clout to com­mand a pre­mium.

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